Edward Cameron, Director, Partnership Development and Research, BSR

Reflecting last week on the assassination of President John F. Kennedy, BBC journalist Mark Mardell wrote that JFK served as “a reminder of what impossibly high hopes are doomed to become—disappointments.” This observation is in my thoughts as I assess the latest round of United Nations climate talks in Warsaw, which concluded last week.

The annual gathering, organized under the auspices of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change, brought together representatives from 198 countries and thousands of delegates from civil society, business, academia, and populations vulnerable to climate impacts. This year’s Conference of the Parties (COP 19) has featured familiar contentions and controversies. Many of the technical discussions have been deadlocked, and industrialized and developing countries continue to argue about how to share the burdens of the transition to low-carbon development.

As the COP postmortem begins, media outlets are describing talks "characterized by discord and acrimony.” Much of the focus will be on last-minute haggling over the words “commitments” and “contributions.” To the uninitiated, this seems like petty political posturing. This, in turn, fuels skepticism and even outright hostility to the UN process. Many stakeholders, including business, now see the talks as a failure or an irrelevance. Some civil society actors have become frustrated with the pace of progress and even staged a symbolic walkout to protest the apparent lack of urgency and ambition.

I would argue that the COP process matters—now more than ever—and that the current inability to meet impossibly high hopes should not be confused with failure. If anything, the hard bargaining at COP 19 reflects the deep importance of this process and illustrates the difficult choices that are embedded in what is an unprecedented challenge to global collective action. Take a deeper look, and there are signs of progress and reasons to remain engaged.

First, there has been political progress. The 198 countries represented in Warsaw have repeatedly confirmed their commitment to “hold the increase in global average temperature below 2°C above pre-industrial levels” and have expressed determination to capture this commitment in a comprehensive global climate agreement at a Paris summit in December 2015. COP 19 keeps this process on track and provides a roadmap to Paris. Business needs to recognize that momentum toward a global deal continues to build, and that this will translate ultimately into a more robust and ambitious regulatory environment for low-carbon development in key markets.

Second, finance in support of low-carbon development is beginning to flow. In 2009, developed countries committed to mobilizing US$30 billion in “fast-start financing” between 2010 and 2012 as a stepping stone toward providing US$100 billion per year in support of emissions-reductions and resilience-building. As of November 2013, these same countries have reported that they mobilized US$35 billion. As WRI and ODI illustrate, not all of this funding is new or additional, the way in which the money is channeled is often problematic, and there is an urgent need to scale up the amount and effectiveness of available financing. However, with governments now joining insurers and institutional investors in developing financial products in support of low-carbon development, an important trend is being set.

Third, a new energy future is being shaped in part because of this process. Most strikingly, a calculation from E3G suggests that the national pledges collectively add up to around US$4 trillion in additional low-carbon investment by 2030. These pledges also signify a large shift in existing financial flows away from high-carbon, business-as-usual investments. From emissions-trading systems in the European Union, China, and California, to energy transformations in Germany and the United States, we are seeing important steps toward a low-carbon future. They are not yet sufficient, but they are a start, and they have often been prompted by the UN talks.   

As UNEP points out, more than 90 countries have submitted formal pledges to reduce their greenhouse gas emissions by 2020. Many have initiated domestic actions to make good on these pledges, and as a result, different policy innovations and financial incentives are being tested around the world. These steps are clearly not enough to meet the immediate and far-reaching threat of global climate change. Greater urgency, ambition, and bold collective action by all are sorely needed. But let us not confuse slow progress with failure. Let us also resist the temptation to dismiss these talks as irrelevant.

During his inaugural address, President Kennedy challenged a new generation to “bear the burden of a long twilight struggle, year in and year out, rejoicing in hope, patient in tribulation." Meeting the challenge of global climate change will require that we maintain both hope in and patience with a flawed but deeply important process.


For more on BSR's work on climate change, please read "Two Degrees of Responsibility: Business in a Climate-Constrained World."